Printed in The Observer on 18/03/2018
As featured in The Guardian:

Scores were locked at 2-2 when Marco Asensio hit a 25-yard-rocket that dipped and whipped in front of Manuel Neuer’s face before landing in the bottom corner. Ecstasy and an eight-man pile-on ensued as the other player screamed expletives at the German stopper whilst claiming his controller was faulty. It’s less than four hours to kick off and these Cadete B players are supposed to be relaxing before a testing league encounter under the lights; the FIFA tournament isn’t exactly doing the trick.

A stench of testosterone hangs in the air of the games room and competitiveness is encouraged by staff around the complex. Academy coach Javier Morán tells me “These are boys who are representing Real Madrid. Real Madrid, fucking hell. They need to be a certain kind of individual to succeed here”. The Infantil boss continues “You can’t coach desire, but you can surround the boys with drive and belief. We have a club ethos which is “Nunca Se Rinde” (Never Surrender) and they need that competitive edge to achieve their targets.”

As players retire to their rooms, in attempts to rest before the game that will be broadcast on national television, I look around to see murals of Di Stefano, Zidane and Raul on the corridor walls. Only the latter played his youth football within ‘La Fabrica’.Real Madrid have been renowned as the ‘Galacticos’ since Florentino Pérez’s presidency began in 2000 and within the 23-man Spain squad that lifted the 2010 World Cup only Juan Mata, Alvaro Arbeloa and of course Iker Casillas were moulded in Los Blancos’ academy. In contrast, nine of the players that put their hands on football’s most sought after trophy that evening in Johannesburg came through Barcelona’s famed ‘La Masia’ and, at a time when Pep Guardiola was taking over the world with a Catalan side full of products that had played at the Mini Estadi before crossing the road to become a significant part of the Barça empire, Madrid were very much fashioned as the dark outcasts amongst many of football’s purists.

“Academy football across Spain is similar everywhere. When scouting, we know we need the boys to be extremely gifted technically and able to adapt to differing tactical and strategic systems.” Morán continues “Where we’re different to Barça and others is how we strive to create complete players who can play in any system.”

Inaugurated in 2005, Ciudad Real Madrid contains enough dressing rooms to host every La Liga club on the same day with multiple gymnasiums, classrooms, conference rooms and offices as well as a hydrotherapy pool, medical centre and press area. Sitting remotely to the north-east of the Spanish capital and just three miles from Barajas Airport, coaches’ bellows are drowned out by planes that continuously tear over the football city built on an area covering 1,200,000 m2. The complex is 40 times bigger than the Santiago Bernabéu stadium, 16 times bigger than Moscow’s Red Square, 2.7 times bigger than the Vatican City and 1.6 times bigger than the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Boasting 10 pitches in total, each with its own stand and the same natural grass as that used on the pitch in the Santiago Bernabéu – which is imported from the Netherlands – seven of which sit directly below the overlooking balconies of the academy player’s studio apartments. The club provide schooling and transport for youngsters from far and wide as well as housing in one of the 40 bedrooms allocated; older players will be given a monthly allowance of 200€.The average stay for those living at the facility is three years and “When you pass through this gate, you are no longer a son of your parents; you are now a player of Real Madrid” is the message given to youngsters, as young as 10, who enter the Valdebebas site. A ruthless welcome into the unforgiving world of elite football.

“In other academies, the most important thing is the process, not the result. But here in Real Madrid, the most important thing is winning. Sure, the player’s coaching is very important in order to create good habits so when the player gets to the Premier Division he has a good knowledge of what football is about. The two things go together [coaching and winning]. It is not one or the other. The two of them have to happen. I mean, you can train players well, but if you don’t win, in here people won’t be happy.” says the cantera product Paco Pavon, who went on to pick up a Champions League winner’s medal in 2002 and made over 100 appearances for the first team.

The 38-year-old continues: “For Real Madrid, the important thing is the intention to be in charge, to command the ball, to play in the opponent’s half,” he says. “In this, both the academies of Real Madrid and Barcelona are alike. Both want to be the boss of the game; always to be the protagonist, to attack, to grab the match by the scruff of the neck from the beginning. They train with this intention.”Periodisation is grasped with the upmost importance around training regimes in Spanish football; minor details such as siestas lasting no longer than 40 minutes and rest-day meals being plated up at meticulously precise times are deemed critical. Early morning recovery work is a habit drilled into players who played the day before and “compensation work” for the ones who didn’t. A rest day will then follow before gradually building up the physical and tactical work throughout the rest of the week with finishing, turning and explosive work taking priority in the last sessions before the game.

Tactically, the coaches will work on simulating match situations and creating exercises based on hypothetical scenarios. Always competitive, sessions are built with orientation and slick passing to break down low block defences. The positioning of players is essential and coaches demand perfection from the groups. Setting 1-0 score-lines with five minutes left, before stepping in to assist and coach defenders on how to pressure, screen, delay and cover whilst hanging onto the lead with desperation, even in training are commonplace. Attackers are urged to be patient with every pass, opening a new window; the quicker the ball moves, in any direction, the more likely a penetrative passing line is created. Two-against-one situations appear with opponents dragged out of position. Tactic boards and sheets containing plays that wouldn’t go amiss in the folder of an NBA coach are all out in force.

The teens are constantly prompted by the lack of opportunities to make it to the top of the Real Madrid ladder and young prodigies are expected to swallow their pride and innovate in order to progress; whether that’s here at European football’s most decorated club or elsewhere.

“You never know what’s going to change at the top with first team managers coming and going so we attempt to focus more on individuals than create a certain profile for each player.” says Javier Morán. “Adaptation is a huge part of life and we have to make sure these boys can think on their feet and react should everything change in the blink of an eye, as it so often does in football.”

The club is wrapped around the winning culture that is built into the walls and the drive to succeed will serve each and every one of the talented hopefuls who pass through the gates of La Fabrica. The ultimate aim is for proud individuals to leave with life skills such as self-discipline, motivation and the ability to progress under ruthless adversity, whether they go on to play professional football or not.

As the Cadete B team are trailing the plucky Trival Valderas Alcorcón by a goal to nil, parents and local fans alike murmur about Head Coach Pedro Sánchez’s decisions, with every stray pass met by grumbles from the stand. This is as clear of a glimpse into the future pressures and obligations for players donning the famous white strip as these 14 and 15-year-old boys will get until they’re on the receiving end of 80,000 white hankies displayed by ‘Los Merengues’ in the Bernabeu. Feeling sorry for yourself won’t cut it around here and a late equalizer was scrambled home before two more injury time goals resulted in a mountain of teenage bodies by the corner flag that went on to receive a standing ovation from parents and supporters following the final whistle.

The scrappy victory had kept the Under-15’s a point clear at the top of the 1º División Autonómica Grupo II table and the delight around the place was less to do with the result than it was the proof of the ‘Nunca Se Rinde’ attitude and spirit ingrained in the make-up of these young boys that was witnessed by all, and that’s the minimum requirement they’ll need to make it here.

Alex Clapham